By Antonio J. Salmerón
Spaniard Alejandro Valverde is confident of his form ahead of this week's World Championship despite losing on home soil to Alexander Vinokourov in last week's Vuelta. "[Francisco]Antequera has assembled great riders around me, so it will be necessary to fight for the medals," explained Valverde on Sunday in Madrid.
The Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears rider leads the Spanish team into the World Championships following the withdrawal of three times World Champion Oscar Freire due to neck injury. "The loss of Freire is an added pressure," added Valverde. Despite the Spanish team's form, the Italian team again enter the championships as favourites.
Italian Olympic Champion Paolo Bettini's confidence received a boost following a strong performance in the Vuelta but, like in Madrid, Alessandro Petacchi and Danilo Di Luca are also aspiring to lead the Italian selection in Salzburg. In spite of its supremacy in the World Championships, the issue of leadership has become an ongoing obstacle for the Italian team.
Italian coach Franco Ballerini assured Spanish news agency EFE, "We will continue being feared and watched by the rest. Spain, without Freire and Astarloa, is a little less strong, but Valverde is an extraordinary rider and he will count with all Spanish selection working hard for him." Ballerini also cited Kazakhstan's Vinokourov, German Stefan Schumacher and Belgian's reigning World Champion Tom Boonen as his team's main threats at this year's championships.
While Vinokourov admits he may be considered a favourite for the event, which commences on Wednesday, he warns the UCI's national ranking system could hamper his championship chances, "the UCI only allows us to participate with only three members (Kashechkin, Yakovlev and me), whereas the strongest nations can have nine. I agree that Kazakhstan is not a top cycling nation, but the difference [in cyclists] seems excessive to me." Describing the 265km route as "hard and selective," Vinokourov believes the Italians, Valverde and Boonen will be his main rivals in a battle to the line. "We will have to wait until the last kilometres, and then, look for our opportunity there," concluded Vinokourov.